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Koen Holtkamp, "Liquid Light Forms"

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cover imageWhile I could not possibly be more weary of synthesizer albums at this point, one still comes along every now and then that miraculously breaches my wall of indifference.  This aptly titled effort is one such album, as Holtkamp has unleashed a burbling, radiant, and psychedelic tour de force.  The sheer candy-colored brightness of Koen's vision still remains a bit of an obstacle for me (as it was earlier this year with Mountain's Centralia), but Liquid Light Forms' dazzling and dense vibrancy is sometimes enough to transcend my normal aesthetic preferences.

Barge

Holtkamp has a long history as an eccentric electro-acoustic omnivore, but he takes an uncharacteristically purist stance for this release: all three pieces were created almost entirely from modular synthesizers and sequencers.  Some inconspicuous guitar creeps into the album's closer ("Hudson Static"), but overall emphasis is quite squarely upon gloopy, colorful artificiality.  Normally, that is the sort of thing I tend to run from, but it is evident from the very first minute of "Battenkill" that Holtkamp is no mere dilettante indulging an analog fetish.

It opens with a marginally promising throbbing drone, but that proves to be merely a backdrop for a flurry of gurgling and sputtering electronic warmth.  It brings to mind a bubbling underground lake of molten rock, but in an unearthly, beautiful way rather than a menacing way.  In fact, if "Battenkill" had just stopped and held its ground there, it would easily be one of the most perfect pieces of music that I have heard in a long time.  Koen had other plans though, which is where Liquid Light Forms gets somewhat thorny for me: he is just as likely to be brutally cheery as he is to be great and he is often restless enough to be both within the same song.

As a result, the last ten minutes of "Battenkill" are devoted to over-caffeinated, major key throbbing and sputtering space music that maintains too rapid a pace to be enjoyable.  I suppose it is complex and unpredictable enough to be impressive instrumentally, but I am not the target demographic for such feats.  It settles down enough to win me back again by the outro, but the damage has already been done.

"Hoosick" offers up a similar rainbow of Day-Glo synth psychedelia, but its lazy pace and lush, sun-dappled central motif make it quite likable and it becomes increasingly so as it evolves into something a bit more twinkling and melancholy.  It is an entirely successful piece, but the lack of any derailment is balanced out by the fact that it never quite flirts with greatness either.  It is merely good.

The album winds down with "Hudson Static," a ten-minute piece recorded live at Brooklyn club Shea Stadium.  Thankfully, it has a darker, heavier tone than its predecessors.  The sound quality is not quite on the level of the studio pieces, but the added grit and hiss work in Koen's favor: it is basically just a thick, ominous drone monolith buffeted with space-y flanges and furious twinkling, so pristine production would probably have only served to neuter it a bit.  Holtkamp happily stays on course for the duration, which ends the proceedings on a strong note.

After several listens, my feelings about Liquid Light Forms remain somewhat complicated, as both my longstanding hostility towards "happy" music and the inherent limitations of a pure modular synth album come into play.  While it sometimes veers dangerously close to "music strictly for other musicians to appreciate" territory, it is hard to imagine a better album emerging from such a constrained palette (especially a conspicuously river-themed one).  More importantly, the first half of "Battenkill" was transcendent enough to reel in a genuinely skeptical and near-hostile listener in myself, which is no small accomplishment.  If that momentum had held, this would have been quite an amazing album indeed.  Instead, it is simply a great, multilayered synthesizer performance that teases at the potential for something more, which is just fine too.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 March 2013 07:20  


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